MG vs YA fiction: What’s The Difference?
(Updated December 17, 2009 – Thanks for the feedback via e-mail, Twitter and comments!)
For those unfamiliar with the acronyms, MG = “middle grade” and YA = “young adult.” But what’s the difference? I’ve come across different opinions, including some authors who don’t like to slot their books into a particular categorization because they’re worried about excluding readers.
Part of the reason for differentiation is marketing, but labels are inescapable. What if an editor or agent asks you if your novel is more MG or YA? Bookstores will want to know where to shelve your book and that means that publishers will be categorizing it as well.
There will always be exceptions to the general guidelines, of course, but as Chuck Sambuchino pointed out in his Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post article, you cannot count on being the exception; you must count on being the rule.
Anyway, I decided to investigate this issue online.
If you just want the summary, you can skip down to the end of this post.
Here’s an excerpt from the definition of Young adult fiction from Wikipedia:
“The vast majority of YA stories portray an adolescent as the protagonist, rather than an adult or a child. The subject matter and story lines are typically consistent with the age and experience of the main character, but beyond that YA stories span the entire spectrum of fiction genres. The settings of YA stories are limited only by the imagination and skill of the author. Themes in YA stories often focus on the challenges of youth, so much so that the entire age category is sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming of age novel. YA novels are often as short as 16000 words.”
I couldn’t find a Wikipedia page focused on the definition of “middle grade.”
An editor says…
According to Stephanie Lane Elliott, Senior Editor, Delacorte Press, every aspect of a MG story needs to be appropriate to an eight-year-old, the youngest in that category. There’s also a difference in plot:
Storywise, too, I think you see a difference between YA, where the characters are old enough to be pretty independent and get into trouble on their own, and middle grade, where kids’ lives are still fairly controlled by their parents—and so you see a lot of fantasy and magical realism. In middle grade, I think a lot of the action tends to come from imagination, whereas in YA, it’s tends to be a little more gritty and realistic.
Stephanie says that in a YA book, it should feel as if the teenager is experiencing the story him- or herself, else it isn’t a YA book.
How long is a MG vs YA book?
According to the Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post, MG novels tend to run 20,000-45,000 words, while YA is 55,000-69,999 words. From Chuck Sambuchino:
The word round the agent blogosphere is that these books tend to trending longer, saying that you can top in the 80Ks. However, this progression is still in motion and, personally, I’m not sure about this. I would say you’re playing with fire the higher you go. When it gets into the 70s, you may be all right – but you have to have a reason for going that high. Again, higher word counts usually mean that the writer does not know how to edit themselves.
A good reason to have a longer YA novel that tops out at the high end of the scale is if it’s science fiction or fantasy. Once again, these categories are expected to be a little longer because of the world-building.
Concerning the low end, below 55K could be all right but I wouldn’t drop much below about 47K.
Lucienne Diver makes a good point about the cost/risk factor to publishers. From her blog post about YA/MG:
Middle grade generally hovers around 50,000 words and thereabouts. YA is generally more like 55,000 to 80,000 words, although we can all think of notable exceptions. If you’re just starting out, though, you’re going to want to keep your novel trimmed to a reasonable word count, because publishers like to keep the cover price down so that readers will be more willing to take a chance on an unknown quantity. In other words, the more the publisher has to spend on paper and printing, the more they have to charge. Also, the bigger the book, the fewer the bookstores can shelve in the allotted space.
YA author Melissa Petreshock feels wordcounts for YA are flexible:
Personally, I write YA and I’m not sure that the word count guidelines hold true anymore. I mean, look at Harry Potter or Twilight. Neither of those book series held anywhere close to the word count you’re talking about for YA. My book is just over 98,000 words and is a YA paranormal romance.
Jennifer Jensen says that YA novels generally run 40,000-75,000 words, but you’ll find books on either side of that. Her advice:
Write the story in the length it takes to tell it, and then check publishers’ guidelines.
From Pimp My Novel (written by someone in the sales dept. of a major trade book publisher:
The word count for MG is around 20,000 – 40,000, whereas it’s 50,000 – 75,000 for YA (as Jessica Faust notes here, these numbers are a little fuzzy, so take this with a grain of salt).
Who reads MG and YA books?
From Pimp My Novel:
MG is chiefly read by late elementary/middle school students; YA is chiefly read by high school students and up.
Adrienne Kress writes about the “new YA” in her blog, The Temp, The Actress and The Writer. Adrienne says MG is written for young people 8-12 years old, but that you can also have divisions within MG:
Within Middle Grade you can also have Upper Middle Grade which can be read too by 13 and 14 year olds (that awkward tween stage of literature).
From Jennifer Jensen in Young Adult Novel Guidelines:
Young Adult readers are generally 12-18 years. The younger portion of this age group is often reading books that their parents would remember as teenage novels. But by the middle of the adolescent years, and sometimes earlier, most teens are reading adult novels. They get pulled back to YA novels with stories that relate directly to their own deep concerns, books that help them figure out their place in the world in a sensitive way.
Apparently one reason that the YA category is growing so quickly right now is because more adults are reading books that are classified as YA.
How old is the protagonist?
According to Laura Backes from the Children’s Book Insider, it can be difficult for a writer to know whether they’re working on a MG or YA story. If the protagonist is under 12 years old, it’s usually MG; over 12 usually means young adult — but the differences are more complicated than that.
Lucienne Diver advises writers to make their protagonist an age near the top range of that category, to maximize readership. For a MG, this would be 12 years old. The theory: while an 8-year-old would have no problem reading about a 12-year-old protagonist, a 12-year-old may be reluctant to read a book about an 8-year-old.
Lucienne’s advice re: YA protagonist age: “You’re best off having your hero or heroine 16, 17 or 18 to give yourself a decent sized readership.”
Librarian Babette Reeves starts her Young Adult section at about grade 9 or 13-15 years old “because that’s when adolescence begins.” She runs her YA section up to about age 20 to cover some of the edgier YA. Babette admits this is unorthodox but says it works for her community.
What are MG and YA books about?
From Pimp My Novel:
MG plots tend to center on the protagonist’s internal world, whereas YA plots are more complex and are more concerned with the protagonist’s effect on his or her external world.
Laura Backes says that middle grade readers are beginning to learn who they are, what they think.
Children in the primary grades are still focused inward, and the conflicts in their books reflect that. While themes range from friendship to school situations to relationships with siblings and peers, characters are learning how they operate within their own world.
YA novels have more complicated plots than MG, and the change in a protagonist is triggered by external events, fitting into a bigger picture.
Adrienne Kress says that pretty much anything is allowed in YA as long as the book adheres to the following rules:
1. The main character has to be a teenager.
2. The plot must have something to do with coming of age.
Her theory is that YA is actually a new genre, and that YA years ago was actually MG.
From Cheryl Klein’s A Definition Of YA Literature:
1. A YA novel is centrally interested in the experience and growth of 2. its teenage protagonist(s), 3. whose dramatized choices, actions, and concerns drive the 4. story, 5. and it is narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective.
From Jennifer Jensen in Young Adult Novel Guidelines:
The underlying themes, regardless of genre or topic, allow teens to examine deeper issues in a safe way: what their role in life is, the difference one person can make, the importance of relationships, coping with tragedy of any sort, etc. The younger set of YA readers can cope with scary subjects when they are at a distance—the character’s friend is doing drugs, not the character himself.
Jennifer also mentions a subcategory of YA called “edgy YA,” which tackles formerly taboo subjects with an intense perspective. These books are aimed at older teens:
Instead of a friend or acquaintance having issues, the main character is the one being abused, cutting, considering suicide, etc., or it’s a family member or best friend of the main character. The viewpoint is very close, the bond and introspection and questioning are strong. Overall, teens can identify keenly with the character’s feelings, if not the situation.
In her blog post, Middle Grade or Young Adult–What’s the Difference?, librarian Babette Reeves says that YA books deal with developmental issues of adolescence:
One is the search for identity. Young Adult novels have protagonists who are trying to figure out who they are as an individual. They try on this and then that, not sure what really fits them. Middle grade novel protagonists are developmentally more into the concreteness of life–friends, siblings, the mean teacher, the lost dog, fairly ordinary (to an adult eye) daily difficulties.
Babette says that finding a set of values one can call one’s own is another major adolescent issue.
After reading over the various opinions, the basic differences seem to boil down to the following list, but with the understanding that there arealways exceptions.
Middle Grade fiction:
- Used to be 20,000-40,000 words, some say around 50,000 words with notable exceptions. Different publishers have their own category wordcounts; check their guidelines. - protagonist 12 years old or younger but should be close to 12 to give yourself a good readership - material should be appropriate for an 8-year-old (youngest in the category): no sex or drug abuse, for example - characters are learning how to operate within their own world
Young Adult fiction:
- Lucienne Diver: “YA is generally more like 55,000 to 80,000 words, although we can all think of notable exceptions.” Different publishers have their own category wordcounts; check their guidelines. - Rarely goes above 90,000 words. - YA readers are usually 12-18 years old. - protagonist over 12 years old (Lucienne Diver: “You’re best off having your hero or heroine 16, 17 or 18 to give yourself a decent sized readership.”) - action tends to be more gritty and realistic - themes tend to focus on the challenges of youth and coming of age - characters are learning how to influence and be influenced by the outside world - the teen’s choices, actions, and concerns drive the story
YA versus Adult: the Difference? (BookishGal) MG vs YA (Author2Author) Wordcount: focus on adult books but literary agent Jessica Faust includes comments re: YA wordcount. A Definition Of YA Literature by Cheryl Klein Wordcount For Novels & Children’s Books: The Definitive Post On word counts and novel length: Colleen Lindsay posting to The Swivet Middle Grade or Young Adult–What’s the Difference? by Babette Reeves Stephanie Lane Elliott, Senior Editor, Delacorte Press Lucienne Diver discusses YA/MG Young Adult Guidelines from Suite 101 Writing the Middle Grade Novel by Kristi Holl Laura Backes: Difference between MG and YA Wikipedia entry on young adult fiction Adrienne Kress: The new YA